Thomas Kiely, British Museum
This colossal limestone statue of a worshipper – identified by the elaborate wreath of leaves and berries around his head – was found in the ruins of a sanctuary near the village of Dali in central Cyprus in 1869. His missing left arm once held a laurel branch, another sign that he is taking part in a religious ritual, perhaps in honour of a god of the countryside. The costume, facial features and beard combine early classical Greek and Persian styles in an eclectic manner very typical of Cypriot artists who drew widely from their neighbours to create a unique Cypriot look.
The size of the figure and the high quality of the carving suggest this is an image of a king or priest. During the first millennium BC Cypriots erected thousands of large-scale images of themselves in sanctuaries to ensure their prayers to the gods continued for eternity. Cypriot sanctuaries were typically open air enclosures with few grand buildings such as temples. The sanctuary at Dali honoured a male god, depicted as a lion killer who protects humans from the wild forces of nature. He was later associated with the Greek Apollo and Phoenician Reshef who had similar attributes. This ‘Master of the Animals’ also acted as the patron god of the ancient city of Idalion where his sanctuary was once located.
The statue was discovered along with hundreds of others by Robert Hamilton Lang, then manager of the Imperial Ottoman Bank on Cyprus. Lang’s career is a typical example of nineteenth-century social mobility, from a relatively humble background in Scotland to being one of the most respected bankers and financial administrators in both the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. Lang’s interests in archaeology on Cyprus were encouraged by a Cypriot antiquarian, Demetrios Pierides, who introduced many foreign travellers and amateur archaeologists to the heritage of the island. Pierides lived in London for a time in his youth and, on return to his homeland, became a leading figure in Cypriot economic and intellectual life, helping to establish the Cyprus Museum in 1882.
The British Museum has benefited enormously from the generosity of more recent Cypriot entrepreneurs with close links to United Kingdom. The A.G. Leventis Foundation has supported the work of the museum for many years in displaying and studying what is recognised as one of the most important collections of Cypriot antiquities outside of the island. If the A.G. Leventis Gallery of Ancient Cyprus had provided a mirror to the extraordinary culture of the island in antiquity, then it also bears witness to the vibrancy and dynamism of the modern Cypriot diaspora in the United Kingdom.
This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 25 October 2012.